New chief executive aims to return reliable operation to the heart of Network Rail strategy and raise the status of the railway as a profession

Andrew Haines

 

Network Rail’s new chief executive, Andrew Haines, has set out an agenda to position operating the railway reliably as his company’s core activity, replacing lost operating skills and raising the status of railway operations as a profession.

Having returned to the industry after 10 years in the aviation sector, Haines said he was “slightly dismayed” at the extent to which rail operating principles had been “overshadowed” and “diminished”. In an address to an industry conference, he observed that Network Rail’s priorities had become increasingly focused on safety, improving asset condition and major projects to increase capacity. At the same time, operations skills and processes had taken a “backseat” and been “squeezed” during cost cutting programmes and a flight from operations to projects. “If you want a better salary, if you want a better work/life balance, if you want better office accommodation, you’re better off in projects, not in ops,” Haines said. 

The situation had contributed to the company being insufficiently focused on operating the railway reliably for a prolonged period during which the task became increasingly challenging as service levels approached maximum frequency in many areas to accommodate demand.

Despite huge investment in rail, greater than any previous generations can have imagined we’ve been delivering declining performance. And not only that, we’ve been failing every year, year-on-year, to deliver the performance we promised to deliver

“Despite huge investment in rail, greater than any previous generations can have imagined we’ve been delivering declining performance. And not only that, we’ve been failing every year, year-on-year, to deliver the performance we promised to deliver,” Haines said. “Seven years of declining performance and seven years of failing to deliver that year’s plan. I’m not sure which is worse. The fact that we can’t even predict what we’re going to do or stick to our promise or the fact that we’ve actually presided over that long term plan.”

To address the situation, Haines said Network Rail needed a new leadership and skills programme to provide operations managers with expertise in both train and infrastructure operation – a whole system perspective lost when the industry was fragmented at privatisation. At the same time, the company’s operations apprenticeship programme needed to be developed so that it was of a similar quality to the maintenance apprenticeship.

The Network Rail chief executive also noted that at present “we don’t have formalised training and clear competence standards for operational roles or a clear career path to give people confidence that this is a profession worth specialising in”. The current management position was described as being “utterly reliant on a transit camp of people transiting through for a few years just to keep our capability going”.

Haines said he had already started re-introducing core operating processes in the company, such as more systematic exercises to practise responses to disruption, and that the impact of safety systems on operating performance would need to be challenged more rigorously. Further areas where change would be needed included a more realistic assessment of the timetable improvements infrastructure projects can provide. He highlighted the remodelling of infrastructure at Waterloo and the Ordsall Chord as projects where enhanced timetables did not reflect the reality of operational constraints.

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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